Arguably Romania’s most beautiful city, the vast architectural heritage of Sibiu is the result of different cultures. The former center of Transylvanian Saxons is today an important cultural and tourist center. Sections of the Old City Wall still surround the medieval city center, which is divided into the Upper Town and the Lower Town. In the Middle Ages, Saxon (German) settlers built several merchant houses within the walls. Plenty of old churches, cute historical houses and narrow alleys complete the feast. Moreover, its old town is a real neighborhood inhabited by charming and hospitable locals.
Romanian buses are unreliable
It took us a long day of hitchhiking to get to Sibiu. We entered Romania via Timisoara where we spent a couple of days. After Timisoara we wanted to explore Transylvania, continuing our route to Sibiu. Though we found several bus connections online, when we arrived at the station there were no buses at all, so we had to hitchhike. It took us three hours for a car to stop and take us to Deva, and then just a few minutes for a pickup truck to Sibiu. The whole experience was brilliant, chatting with both drivers and enjoying great views. Completely exhausted, but happy, we arrived to Sibiu late that evening. After a brief moment to recover, we dashed to a local bar to celebrate our adventure. We had made it so we deserved a beer! Ok, more than one beer.
How to Get to Sibiu
As you can see, Romanian buses are quite unreliable. However, and fortunately, the train network is extensive. From Timisoara, there is only one train a day to Sibiu, and the journey takes about 6.5 hours. From Bucharest, there are 3 daily trains and, the journey takes between 5 to 6 hours. There are 7 trains a day from Braşov that take between 2.5 to 4 hours. There are even two international trains from Budapest to Sibiu that also stop in Arad on the way. It’s a long 10 to 11 hour trip from Budapest. From Arad, it takes about 6 hours. Finally, Wizzair flies to Sibiu from several European destinations.
Staying in a historical building
Our initial plan was to book a room in the famous Old Town Hostel (now City Stay Hostel) on the Small Square. It was the best ranked accommodation at the time and had wonderful double rooms with bathroom for a very affordable price. Unfortunately, it was fully booked. The only other option was the Felinarul Hostel, equally beautiful but with no en suite bathrooms. I simply do not like sharing bathrooms, sorry. However, traveling is all about adjusting and to me as an architect, staying in a historical building is a must, so we booked it anyway. The place was amazing and everything was perfect, except for the cute dog constantly biting our feet.
Other Places to Stay in Sibiu
Over the last decade, tourism has been steadily increasing in Sibiu city. Thus, there is a wide range of accommodation to choose from. Since all tourist attractions are in the old town, staying there is a must. One of your best options is the historical Hotel Casa Luxemburg. This baroque building is one of the oldest in the city, and its rooms overlook one of Sibiu’s main squares. Another interesting hotel in an old house is the Hotel Marabella. It’s in the picturesque Lower Town and offers stylish rooms, some of them with views. If you are into beautiful palaces, the Continental Forum Sibiu is your best bet. The large neoclassical building from 1912 offers elegant rooms and a cool spa.
Highlights of the Upper Town
We spent two days exploring Sibiu’s wonderful Old Town. Sibiu was the European Capital of Culture in 2007 so all of its buildings were fully restored. The city’s highlights are its three main squares: Piața Mare (Big market square), Piața Mică (Small square), and Piaţa Huet (Hayes square). In fact, the majority of important buildings are around the three. We climbed the tall Council Tower (Turnul Sfatului) on The Big Square and enjoyed unobstructed views of the city. We spent time on the same square admiring the lavishly decorated façades of Sibiu’s City Hall, Brukenthal Palace and the Roman Catholic Church.
Piața Mare (Big Market Square)
The Piața Mare has been the epicenter of the old town since the late 15th century. This large elegant square was the playing field of the rich and powerful. Through centuries it has hosted markets, public meetings, and even executions. The Tarnul Sfatului or Council Tower is from the late 13th century. It used to be the entrance to the nearby City Hall. Take note that every building on the square is a Historical Monument of National Importance. Don’t forget to climb all the way to the top of the tower for some of Sibiu’s best views. If you are into art, enter the beautiful Brukenthal Palace and admire medieval Transylvanian, Flemish, Dutch, and Italian works.
Piața Mică (Small Square)
The council tower separates the Big Square from the Small Square or Piața Mică. Unlike the former, Mica is more intimate, its buildings less imposing, and not so compact. In fact, the Strada Ocnei street under the Bridge of Lies divides the square in two. Numerous colorful 17th-century houses surround the square. Notice the ground floor loggias or covered archways, which provide for an intimate atmosphere. Some of the best coffeehouses and restaurants are here. One of the oldest houses in Sibiu, Casa Artelor, is on Mica too. Though it isn’t clear when it was built, documents as early as 1340 mention it.
The less visited Lower Town
After spending the first day in the Upper Town, we took the Stairs Passage (Pasajul Scarilor) to the Lower Town. The north side of the Lower Town is crisscrossed by cobbled streets and surrounded by cute historical houses, perfect to walk about. On the other hand, the southern part has a beautiful park and medieval towers. The long linear park is where the city moat used to be. A large portion of the medieval city walls with five of the original towers is next to it. The whole area is peaceful and strangely enough, not overly touristic. It’s one of the most beautiful places in Sibiu city and perhaps in Romania.
Stairs Passage (Pasajul Scarilor)
The most scenic street in Sibiu, Pasajul Scarilor, is the main pathway between the upper and lower towns. It was built in the 18th century to connect the two neighborhoods. The passage swings under the arches of the original fortifications from the 12th century. Its name means the Stairway Passage, because of its numerous stairs. The branch of the street called Turnul Scarii (Tower of Steps) that goes to the Piaţa Huet is covered. Though still somewhat off the beaten track, the Piaţa Huet is Sibiu’s oldest square. You can have delicious coffee and cakes on historical Café Wien, at the corner of the square, overlooking the passage.
As mentioned above, you will find a long strip of the historic city walls south of the upper town. It has three towers named following the guilds that defended the city: Harquebusiers’ Tower (Turnul Archebuzierilor), Potters’ Tower (Turnul Olarilor) and Carpenters’ Tower (Turnul Dulgherilor). Continue walking along the wall and you’ll reach another tower. The Great Tower (Turnul Gros) homes the Sibiu State Philharmonic. At the end of the Strada Cetatii, you’ll find the last tower: Tinsmiths’ Tower (Turnul Zincarilor – Fierarilor). Once more, climb one of the towers to admire the views.
Since there isn’t much to see outside of the Old Town, we explored it further. On the north side of the Small Square you’ll spot a small cast iron bridge that connects the Upper and Lower Towns, called the Bridge of Lies. Legend has it that the bridge has ears, and for every lie you say it cracks a little. I never lie so I don’t know if it’s true. Well, that was a lie, but I didn’t say it while crossing the bridge! Don’t miss the impressive 14th century Lutheran Cathedral of Saint Mary that sits on Hayes Square. The organ inside is the biggest in Southeast Europe. The nearby Holy Trinity Cathedral, Sibiu’s main Orthodox Church, is also worth a visit.
Bridge of Lies
Sibiu’s most famous bridge, the Bridge of Lies, is an intriguing landmark. The current iron bridge replaced the old wooden one in 1859. It is the first cast-iron structure in Romania and the first bridge without pylons. Mystery and legends wrap the bridge. Rumor has it that women would come to the bridge to declare their love to their lovers swearing to be virgins. If the wedding night proved the later was a lie, the husband would throw the wife from the bridge. Yes, it’s really a misogynist and stupid legend. Another one says that cheating traders were exposed on the bridge to discourage other traders.
Lutheran Cathedral of Saint Mary
The Gothic Lutheran Cathedral of Saint Mary is Sibiu’s most impressive church. Construction of the church began in 1350 and took almost 200 years to complete. It finally opened in 1520. Strangely enough, they finished the 73-meter high tower before the church itself. It is Transylvania’s tallest tower. Take your time and go all the way to the top for great views. Notice the few remaining original frescoes inside the church. The nicest one is the Crucifixion from 1445. Additionally, there is a large collection of valuable objects, including a rare collection of funerary stones and mural paintings.
Romania is a culinary heaven, just like every other Balkan country. Coming from Serbia, I didn’t expect much from its cuisine. After all, we share the same history: both Romania and Serbia were partly under the Austro-Hungarian and partly under Ottoman rule. Nevertheless, I tried Sarmale, rolls of cabbage leaves stuffed with rice and meat. I discovered that in Romania they serve it with Polenta, a boiled cornmeal. It was delicious, just like everything else we tried at the fantastic Sibiul Vechi Restaurant. Another restaurant that offers great food in a place full of atmosphere is the famous Golden Barrel, Romania’s oldest restaurant.
The most beautiful places in Romania surround Sibiu. Pretty close to the city, you will find the popular Astra Museum. It is a village museum that preserves century-old traditions and serves as an education center. The country’s most scenic road Transfăgărășan is only an hour and a half away. Go on an excursion or spend the night in one of the lodgings next to Lake Balea. If you didn’t have enough of historic cities, visit Medias north of the city, or Alba Iulia west of it. Finally, one of Romania’s most beautiful castles, Hunedoara, is also relatively close to Sibiu.
Fortified Churches of Transylvania
The main reason we came to Romania was to visit beautiful historical cities and the off the beaten track Fortified Churches. These churches are scattered all around Transylvania. UNESCO’s included the most important ones in its World Heritage Sites list. Close to Sibiu there is a wonderful example: the 12th century Cisnadie Fortified Church. If you don’t go to Brasov or Sighisoara, the latter provides a great insight into Romania’s medieval heritage and authentic Transylvanian village life. We didn’t have time to go because we focused on churches around Sighisoara. If you happen to go, please let us know what you think.